Skin trade

Welcome to the new world of dating, where everyone's out to get the best deal they can.



James Surowiecki
September 22, 2000 11:30PM (UTC)

The September issue of Talk magazine featured a painfully true-to-life portrait of the dating travails of Kristin Whiting, a 32-year-old single woman in New York who is, to turn Jane Austen on her head, in want of a husband. The most remarkable moment in the piece comes when Whiting explains that she refused to go out on a second date with a personable, attractive man because on their first date he suggested they split the check. "I want to be taken out for dinner," Whiting says. "Not for the economics, but for the principle."

What's remarkable about this is not that Whiting dumped the guy. That's dismaying, but not really surprising (except for the fact that Whiting is so upfront about it) to anyone familiar with the New York dating scene. No, what's remarkable about the story is that Whiting has elevated her insistence on being paid for into a principle. Because what, after all, could the principle really be?

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Of course, there is no principle -- at least no defensible one -- behind Whiting's behavior. She's just borrowed an old custom, mixed it with a desire to live an easier life than the one she'd have to live if she paid for everything herself and come up with a slapdash ethos. And in this, Whiting might have walked right off the pages of Candace Bushnell's new novella collection, "4 Blondes," in which sex and commerce are inextricably linked. For Bushnell, relationships are essentially forms of trade, beauty and sex going in one direction, and wealth and the illusion of power going in the other. And no one seems to do anything in the war zone of "romance" -- the word itself seems like a bad joke in the novel -- without contemplating exactly what they're going to get out of it.

The picture Bushnell paints may be bleaker than reality (though, to be fair, I may not know what I'm talking about, since I don't own a house in Southampton, nor are B-list models trying to get me to take them to Nobu). But it's closer to the truth than we might hope. To be single in New York right now is to live in a strange world, one where by day men and women try to interact as peers, but by night often revert to gender roles worthy of the 1950s, save for the fact that it's OK to sleep together before you're married. Men court; women are courted. Men make sure they provide; women make sure they're charming and beautiful. New York in the year 2000 is the City that Feminism Forgot. Or maybe just the City that Forgot Feminism.

Of course, there are lots of exceptions to this, lots of people out there who don't let rules about what men and women are supposed to do or be get in the way. Still, the general mood is one of confusion, a mishmash that's equal parts "4 Blondes" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And one way out of that confusion seems to be the solution Bushnell's characters embrace: Men are expected to bring money and status to a relationship, women beauty and sexuality.

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The curious thing is that Bushnell's characters make this bargain so willingly. Janey could date the "poor," sincere novelist, but prefers the rich and odious movie producer, and Cecelia could have married someone other than the Prince she's so lukewarm about. And the obvious question is: Why did they settle? Now, Bushnell makes answering that a little complicated, since even the people who sell out don't seem to enjoy the fruits of their mercenary ways. But even if we believe that money can't buy happiness, it seems naive to believe that, all other things being equal, having money makes no difference at all. Janey and Cecilia may be shallow and corrupt for wanting to find a rich man to take care of them. But I think they're right in believing that it will make a difference.

And so while Ann Marlowe suggests that money is tied to sexiness, I don't think women's pursuit of men with money is about sex at all. I think it's really about money. It's about being able to buy that dress you really want, to live in that beautiful apartment your own salary would never be able to pay for, to go out to dinner five nights a week and never once pick up a check. These are not inconsequential things, especially in New York. And in the end, it's not actually about the things themselves. It's about being able to be careless. It's very difficult to live in New York and not worry about money, no matter how much you make. And the desire to be free of those worries, even if just for a little while, is an understandable one.

It's also, in some sense, an economically rational desire. After all, whatever inroads feminism has made in the workplace, the income gap between women and men is still wide. And when it comes to relationships in New York, the real income gap -- the difference between what you make and what someone you could date makes -- is probably wider than ever, thanks to the flood of Wall Street money now sloshing around the city, almost all of it in the pockets of men. The life someone like Janey gets access to by dating a financier is not a life she could ever make for herself.

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The problem is that you cannot acquire a bright shining life in that way and still be an adult. And in their faith that they can, these characters embody the central delusion of post-feminism -- at least as it's lived in the professional and upper classes -- which is that you can be a strong, serious person while still living off someone else. But you can't.

The really painful thing about our acceptance of female dependence as the basis for romance is that it does more than just wreak havoc on romance, though it does do that. It also makes it hard for men and women to deal with each other on an equal footing anywhere else. Independence is the prerequisite for respect. What happens at night affects what happens during the day. The more we assume that men have to take charge of women when they're out on a date, which we do assume more now than we did a decade ago, the harder it is to let women take charge of anything anywhere else. And assuming that men are desperate for the adulation of young beautiful women makes it hard to take men seriously as well.

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The point is not to implement intricate check-splitting schemes every time we go out to dinner (or, for that matter, to condemn a marriage in which the husband is the breadwinner). What I'm really talking about here is the desire to find relationships that are based on something more than exchange, and that amount to more than elaborate power plays. Let's admit that that's a naive desire. But if you give up on it you end up in one of two places: back in an Edith Wharton novel or else in the world of "4 Blondes." Those are both unpretty places to be.

But framing it this way makes it sound as if it's all just a matter of individual choice, when in fact so little in the realm of sex and custom and money comes down to that. It's not that Bushnell's characters, men and women, are bad, exactly. It's just that, like Kristin Whiting, they've taken the worst aspects of traditional male-female relations, tossed in a hefty dose of materialism and faux careerism and thrown out the inconveniences of raising a family. (The thought of any of Bushnell's characters -- even the ones who already have children -- as a mother or father inspires horror.)

What they've given up on -- actually, what they probably never embraced -- is feminism's idea that life is made of whole cloth, and that something truly powerful could happen if men and women met as equals in the workplace, in the home and in the bedroom. That idea still strikes me as the only one worth striving for. But when I look around and ask myself whether we're close to making it real, the only answer seems to be: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

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James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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